Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Katz wants it, so chopper's in the cards

Mayor skips normal due diligence to move pet purchase to top of police priority list

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Now that the confetti and balloons have been dispersed, it's time to take a more sober look at the much ballyhooed Winnipeg Police Service helicopter, which is reportedly coming soon to a high prairie sky near you.

Premier Greg Selinger provided a somewhat surprising boost on Monday to the helicopter dream by offering to pay for operating expenses. Mayor Sam Katz has suggested the provincial support makes this virtually a done deal.

Not to rain on the helicopter's flight path, but how exactly did we get here? The procurement of a helicopter has been discussed for years but there has been very little in the way of public debate and no due diligence.

Normally, police resource priorities come via divisional commanders, who prepare a wish-list of new equipment and resources they want for the upcoming year. These are used to forge a business plan that is sent to city hall.

The WPS would then present a cost-benefit analysis of some sort at the standing-committee level. If the committee approves, it would go to executive policy committee and then the floor of council for a vote.

None of this happened here. A helicopter has never been identified as a priority in the WPS business plan. No cost-benefit analysis has been provided to any level of council. A report does exist but it has not yet been released.

Although this is a complete rejection of due process at city hall, it is not necessarily out of character for the mayor, who by now has a well-earned reputation for thumbing his nose at procedural convention.

So, where exactly did the push for a police helicopter start?

It first arose in 2002 in the wake of an incident in which a police officer chasing a stolen car was shot while trying to pull the vehicle over. A community fundraising campaign called Take Flight Winnipeg formed soon to help add a helicopter to help battle the car-theft epidemic afflicting the city.

That campaign faltered but the issue remained a priority at city hall, primarily it seems for Katz. City hall and police sources suggested Katz is uncommonly fond of the idea, and that he may have told Police Chief Keith McCaskill this was a priority, rather than the other way around.

It is quite possible there is a good idea stuck beneath all this clumsy politics. A helicopter makes perfect sense in rural and remote areas, both to track criminals and respond to accidents. There are applications in urban areas as well. Proponents in Winnipeg believe the helicopter would level the playing field with car thieves, and eliminate the need for high-speed pursuits.

However, it was an idea that arose at a time when auto thefts were rampant and solutions in short supply. Since then, other measures including the successful mandatory immobilizer program have cut down dramatically on car thefts. This might diminish the need for a helicopter.

Officially, it's tough to tell exactly what the city's position is. Although it has never been to a vote, a spokeswoman for the mayor said yesterday the city "is committed to buying a helicopter."

Scott Fielding, chairman of the city's finance committee, has said in media reports he will "move heaven and earth" to find the money to buy the 'copter, although he hasn't said exactly how or where.

It seems everyone has skipped over the "why-we-need-the-helicopter" part of the debate to discuss where we're going to find the money.

Katz needs to explain how this fits into the city's long-term fiscal plan. This is a city that seems to be undergoing an interminable budget-cutting review. Staff and resources have been drained from most city department to preserve spending on police and fire, and the never-ending property tax freeze.

In light of helicoptermania, perhaps it is reasonable to ask if there are additional funds for parks, libraries and recreation.

This shouldn't be an either or scenario for Katz, as long as he can make a convincing argument for a helicopter. Until we hear a more complete case, we can't be certain this is the best use of the money for the WPS. A police source suggested that the estimated $3.5 million needed to buy a helicopter could have bought almost everything on the divisional commanders' initial wish list. Perhaps that is better for law and order in the city.

By committing to the purchase of a helicopter before laying out the costs and benefits, Katz has once again shown he is not restrained by due process. He is promising that the normal budget process will be followed now that the province has agreed to cover operating costs. However, even if a proposal is presented through proper channels now, it certainly looks like a decision has already been made.

Katz clearly wants a helicopter. Now, he should show us why we need it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2009 A5

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